INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY originated from the trade union movement in America in the early 20th century, particularly in the activism of the women who worked in the clothing industry sweatshops of the time.
In 1907 the women held a “Hunger March” in New York in protest at the dangerous working conditions and very long working periods, and calling for a ten-hour working day and improved wages. The police attacked the march, and the following year on 8 March 1908 a commemorative march was held, which became a milestone in women’s history.
This date is what we now celebrate as Women’s Day, and by 1911 it had gone global. International Women’s Day has evolved to become an important time for women around the world to commemorate their struggles and celebrate their achievements.
Centenary of right to vote
For Ireland, International Women’s Day 2018 comes in the year that we celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote. It is an important moment to look to the changes we need to make for women’s equality.
When in December 1918, Countess Markievicz was the first woman elected to Parliament and the first women to be appointed to Cabinet, it must have seemed like women’s equality was on the way. Little did women at the time know that it would be another 60 years until another woman, Maire Geoghan Quinn, would become a senior Minister or that in 2018, there would only be 19 women to have been appointed to Cabinet.
In many ways, we have come a long way in Ireland, with the removal of the marriage bar, and with referendums on divorce and marriage equality, but on some issues, the pace of change has remained remarkably slow.
The gender pay gap is still at 13.9% and we have an even larger gender pensions gap of 37%. The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) is currently leading calls for a fair and equal pension system that recognises the unpaid care work that women do, and the detrimental impact of the marriage bar on women’s pensions. Reforming the pensions system is high on the government’s agenda for 2018 and it is so important that we place women’s experiences and work/life patterns at the core of those reforms.
Combatting sexual violence and harassment
For younger women, there are still many barriers to equality. It Stops Now is a European wide project led by NWCI, that aims to prevent and combat sexual violence and harassment and build a culture of zero tolerance in third level education.
It Stops Now raises awareness through active campaigning, and by developing training and policy resources for students and staff. Students have been particularly active around the issues of consent, and sexual and harassment and abuse in colleges around Ireland, and they have a huge role to play in giving these issues national prominence.
In a wider context of sexual harassment and violence, we know that one in five women will experience domestic abuse at one point in their life. A serious barrier to ending violence against woman is that we continue to lack current research and data as to the extent and depth of the problem from our statutory agencies. To appropriately tackle violence against women, all forms of violence against women must be criminalised and appropriately punished to ensure women have access to justice.
Under the hashtag #MeToo we have recently witnessed a sea change in women coming forward and reporting sexual harassment and sexual assault. We must now ensure that our legal system is delivering for women affected by men’s violence.
For this we must put women’s experiences and needs at the centre of the legal process and support women all the way through. We must ensure that all forms of violence against women are being criminalised and that we punish perpetrators appropriately. Crucial legislation, such as the Domestic Violence Bill, is currently passing through the Oireachtas. This must be a priority for government for 2018.
Of course, the importance of the upcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment cannot be forgotten this International Women’s Day. This will be an historic opportunity to ensure comprehensive healthcare services for all women, including abortion and for doctors to care for all of their patients without fear of prosecution.
Every pregnancy is different, and like all healthcare decisions, pregnancy decisions are deeply personal. This complexity has no place in our Constitution.
This International Women’s Day feels like real change is coming for women and girls in Ireland. We can do it.
Orla O’Connor is Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), Ireland’s largest women’s membership organisation.